Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Severance Hall
October 10

At his best in an operatic setting.

Ordinarily it’s the conductor who makes the strongest impression at Severance. Especially when the conductor is a prominent veteran like Marek Janowski, who has led orchestras around the world. At 74, he is renowned for his work in opera houses throughout Europe and the U.S., and an impressive discography that includes a complete, well-regarded Ring cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

For all that, it was the soloist who shone brightest at Janowski’s concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra last week. Lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani showed why he is a regular at the Metropolitan Opera with a finely crafted, moving performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Many of Britten’s vocal works were written for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and are showcases of style and technique. In Serenade the vocalist is paired with a French horn player, to great effect. Opening and closing horn solos offstage set a melancholy nocturnal atmosphere. And the harmonics of the horn as it plays with and off the singer during his six songs are captivating, offering everything from heightened emotion to humorous commentary.

Brilliant Britten.
The songs are musical settings of works by Tennyson, Blake, Keats and other English poets, and the diction that Polenzani brought to his reading was sterling, a beautiful combination of phrasing and clarity. The first piece, “Pastoral” by Charles Cotton, starts in countertenor territory, with succeeding pieces gradually descending to standard tenor range. Polenzani handled the transitions flawlessly while bringing eloquent expression to each of the poems – sadness in Blake’s brief “Elegy,” ominous overtones in a 15th-century dirge, and wrenching emotion in a Keats sonnet. It’s rare to hear English-language text sung so clearly and sensitively, with just the right balance of passion and restraint.

That tone was matched by Richard King, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal horn player. He was just as nuanced as Polenzani, weaving soft colors and bright contrasts into the intricate vocal lines. In King’s hands the horn had a voice of its own, complementing the singer’s with cool hues and warm responses.

Janowski was at his best in the Britten piece, showing his opera background with a superb balance between the two soloists and the orchestra. The music always underpinned the foreground performances, never overwhelmed them. And his ability to conjure up moods and visual effects in the orchestral accompaniment was breathtaking.

All of which made the opening and closing works on the program surprisingly disappointing. Janowski creates an elegant Old World sound, which gave Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas and Mélisande a radiant glow. But the piece slogged along to the point of becoming ponderous, not leaving much of an impression.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor – the only symphony he wrote – is a big piece that sloshes around, aspiring to a dramatic impact that it never quite achieves. Janowski rendered it with a finely calibrated transparency, and showed great skill in his ability to take the orchestra from a roar down to hushed whispers. Otherwise the piece seemed pro forma, a token nod to the Dutch composer that did not play to the conductor’s strengths. Nor, for that matter, the orchestra’s.

Still, it was a treat to hear the Britten piece. And in his 100th anniversary year, there is more to come.

For more on Matthew Polenzani: http://www.matthewpolenzani.com/

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